Building an Effective Participant Communications Program

In recent years, plan sponsors have seen participation and contribution levels dwindle in the face of economic uncertainty and a volatile stock market. In this environment, educating participants about the specifics of a plan may not be enough. What is often needed is a more comprehensive communications strategy. But what does such a strategy entail and how do you go about implementing it?

Six Steps to Success 

There is no one formula for a successful plan communications strategy. Every plan differs from the next, and each has its specific terms and participant priorities. Yet there are six steps you should keep in mind when creating any plan communication program.

  1. Set goals, objectives, and time frames. Document broad goals, specific objectives that will contribute to the achievement of each goal, and time frames for each objective. This document -- sometimes called a creative brief -- provides the framework or roadmap for the overall program.
  2. Gauge your audience. Marketing communications professionals utilize a myriad of sophisticated tools -- from direct mail campaigns and telephone surveys to focus groups -- to help them understand their audience better. For an individual plan sponsor, an ideal way to get to know your audience is to interview employees. Identify their needs and concerns, which should drive the type, nature, and frequency of plan communications.
  3. Tailor the message.Participants must be able to relate to the message in order to understand it. Communications need to be as personally relevant as possible. For example, income tax reduction generally is not a motivating message to low and moderate income earners, but ease of saving and the effects of long-term compounding are. For this reason, the most effective communications programs are also the most easily modified for different audiences. An ongoing educational campaign, for instance, may include an online newsletter that has different content for various age groups.
  4. Keep it simple.Follow the advice preached in most advertising and marketing communications courses -- that is, keep it simple.
  5. Measure success.This is perhaps the most commonly overlooked step in any communications campaign. Plan sponsors need to measure levels of participation at the onset of a program and then monitor changes throughout its implementation phase. This is again where flexibility becomes important: If participation is not improving, alterations may be needed to better target low-level and non-participants.
  6. Choose your format. Finally, when developing a communications program, one must consider whether Internet delivery is the best medium. While no on design and quantity. However, once again, this is an area where the communications program professional needs to understand his/her audience in order to reach them in the most effective manner. Unless the entire audience has access to the Internet, even the most creative, targeted, well-conceived communications program will produce limited results.

Personalize Wherever Possible

Despite the ongoing debate, most industry observers believe that personalized communication is clearly the best option for employees -- one-on-one advice being the ideal. But for most plan sponsors, this is a cost-prohibitive benefit to extend to any but the most key employees. The next-best option that likely fits most communication budgets may be simplified, personalized recommendations such as asset allocation models that use a series of easy-to-answer questions in an interactive worksheet that takes into consideration an employee's larger financial picture.

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